Super Deluxe

Super Deluxe

Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe is a significant step up from his previous film Aaranya Kaandam, aided by a sumptuous colour palette from P.S. Vinod and Nirav Shah, and the presence of a number of top actors from the South. Included are the likes of Vijay Sethupathi, Samantha, Fahadh Faasil, Ramya Krishnan and Mysskin but the newcomers are just as good and hold their own against the established stars. It’s an interesting story too, although after a good start the middle section does wander and become rather self-indulgent before ending with a stronger finale. It’s still a compelling watch, not just to discover what happens in the various threads, but also to spot influences, note the repeated motif’s and ultimately try to figure out just what Thiagarajan Kumararaja is trying to say. Super Deluxe isn’t for the faint-hearted – the language is strong and there are a number of confronting themes, but the juxtaposition of topical issues and out-and-out fantasy is intriguing even with a close to 3 hour run time.

The film consists of a number of different threads which don’t interconnect as such, but instead superficially intersect and occasionally influence each other. The first involves a cheating wife Vaembu (Samantha) and what happens when her husband Mugilan (Fahadh Faasil) discovers her infidelity when her lover has the bad taste to die during their lovemaking session. Next there are a group of schoolboys who arrange an elaborate plan to bunk school and watch porn movies. Their problems start when one of the four recognises his mother Leela (Ramya Krishnan) in the movie and the ripples from his subsequent actions have far-ranging consequences. Part of this sparks an existential crisis for Leela’s husband Dhanasekaran (Mysskin) who has become a faith healer after surviving the tsunami by holding on to a statue of Jesus. The other boys end up in trouble when they try to raise the funds to buy a new TV and end up in a truly out of this world experience. And then there is the story of Shilpa (Vijay Sethupathi), a transgender woman trying to reunite with the wife and young son she left behind many years before. It’s a fascinating blend of narratives and some of the stories work better than others. Or perhaps it’s more that some parts of each story are simply brilliant (and brilliantly simple), but then at times Thiagarajan Kumararaja and his co-writers seem to get carried away and try just that little too hard to be edgy and confrontational.

As well as a lot of swearing, there is a lot of sex in this film. Vaembu is first seen in bed with her lover, the teenage boys are obsessed with sex (although that’s not surprising) and there’s a creepy cop (Bagavathi Perumal) whose rapacious tendencies provide an important plot point in two of the stories. One of these is nasty but effective, while the other is too drawn out and staged to be convincing. In those parts where the film is subtle and suggests rather than shows, it is more chillingly real and packs more of a punch compared to the more filmi scenes with Vaembu, Mugilan and SI Berlin. Perhaps it’s a consequence of too many writers (Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K. Sekar and Thiagarajan Kumararaja are all credited with the screenplay), but Vaembu and Mugilan’s story is the least successful for me, despite fine performances from the two actors. Their relationship just doesn’t ring true and the characters are an odd mix of modern and traditional that doesn’t seem plausible. However, I appreciate that the fallen woman gets a shot at redemption and isn’t permanently tainted by her infidelity. Something which is also the case with Leela who is proud of her film achievements and sees no reason to disavow her presence in a porn movie. It is refreshingly different even if at times there is a feeling that some of the dialogue has been written by grubby little boys sitting and sniggering at the mere mention of sex. That may be more to do with the subtitles though as I have read a number of comments that some concepts weren’t translated accurately, particularly in respect to Ramya Krishnan’s character.

The most successful thread is that of Shilpa, and despite all the issues around a cis male actor playing a trans woman, Vijay Sethupathi is much more here than just a man in a wig. The issues here feel true to life, shocking as they are, as Shilpa tries to navigate a brief visit to her son’s school and faces prejudice and abuse at almost every turn. Ashwanth Ashokkumar is outstanding as her son Rasukutty and although Gayathrie has very little screen-time as the abandoned wife, she makes a strong impact as her facial expressions say so much more than any dialogue could possibly manage. Vijay transforms himself yet again and adds many layers and nuances to his character, alternating between comedy and tragedy but still providing a sense of the underlying weakness that drove Shilpa to abandon her family.

The first half has a lot of well-written comedy but immediately after the interval the film shifts into more serious territory. The pace is also more uneven in the second half, and the labyrinthine feeling of diving down a rabbit hole, so well done in the first half, falters as the frenetic pace slows. There is still a lot going on though, and with the richness of the visuals the film at times becomes almost overwhelming. There are close-ups of ants running up and down a door frame for example – the implication initially seems fairly straight forward, but is it really? There are so many questions and possible explanations for even the simplest shot and it seems that every single part of the set could have a secondary meaning. This is a film that I think does need multiple viewings, and I’m sure that I will see more detail each time.

There are plenty of film references here too – to both Indian and Western films and probably a lot more cultural references that completely passed me by. Despite the variability in the second half this is definitely a film that I’d recommend for the sumptuous visuals, excellent performances and intricate story. Thiagarajan Kumararaja has built a complex world that tries to encompass the natural, unnatural and everything in between. The best part about Super Deluxe is that he so very nearly succeeds.

 

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Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum

Kadhalum Kadandhu Pofum

After the success of his début venture, Nalan Kumarasamy unexpectedly follows Soodhu Kavvum with an official remake of a Korean film; Kim Kwang-sik’s My Dear Desperado. I haven’t seen the original but the story of an unlikely friendship between a gangster and a young IT graduate translates well to Chennai, while Vijay Sethupathi and Madonna Sebastian are both excellent in the lead roles. Despite the title (which translates to “Love too shall pass”), there is little romance in the film, but instead Nalan’s screenplay includes plenty of comedy, a good dash of drama and only a smidgen of violence. Nalan keeps to his trademark witty dialogue and quirky characterisation too with plenty of funny one-liners, making Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum engaging and definitely well worth a watch.

The focus of the story is Yazhini (Madonna Sebastian), newly graduated from a small regional college and desperate to escape her confining life with her parents in Viluppuram. Somehow she manages to secure a job in Chennai and escapes to a shared flat and the realisation of her dream, but unfortunately her happiness is short-lived. The company folds, her job goes and Yazhini is left looking for somewhere less expensive to live as she struggles to find a new job.

Yazhini’s move downwards into cheaper digs brings her into contact with the seamier side of life in Chennai, and she quickly discovers that her neighbour is a rowdy who works as an enforcer for the local area councillor. Kathir (Vijay Sethupathi) is newly released from jail and wants nothing more than to run his own bar, but his boss decides that his talents lie more in dealing with petty disputes and training up a new recruit. While Yazhini thinks that Chennai offers a world of opportunity, Kathir knows that even a small dream can be impossible to achieve and this difference in outlook is what makes their eventual friendship even more unlikely.

Initially Yazhini is frightened of Kathir and the world he represents, but gradually she warms to her neighbour and discovers that he’s not as violent as first appears. Madonna Sebastian’s Yazhini is confident but not reckless and her determination to succeed makes her a likeable character. She suffers numerous setbacks but rarely loses her optimism and for the most part her dilemma feels genuine and plausible. I really liked Madonna here after her excellent performance in Premam and I hope she gets more of these kind of roles where there is something more to her character than simply eye candy. Yazhini is a strong character who knows exactly what she wants and isn’t afraid of trying almost anything to achieve her dream. Kudos to Nalan for not making Yazhini follow the usual heroine path in a Tamil film, and avoiding a conventional romance and an unhappy end even though she’s an independent, modern career woman.

Kathir on the other hand is laconic and laid back, possibly because he isn’t a very good gangster! It’s rare that the main male lead loses his fights so emphatically, but despite instigating much of the dishoom, Kathir is the one who ends up bruised and bloody by the end. Even Yazhini comments on his frequent injuries and when added in to Kathir’s impulsive and erratic nature it becomes obvious why his boss doesn’t trust him with the management of a bar. Vijay Sethupathi excels at these kinds of roles where he can mix up comedy with fight scenes and a fair amount of melodrama to make a surprisingly convincing character. He has an excellent rapport with his co-star and his bumbling thug with a tender heart has plenty of quirks that make him seem more authentic. My favourite is his ability to rustle up a mean curry despite his deficiencies as a fighter. Jail may not have taught Kathir how to fight but it did teach him how to cook!

The support cast mainly have small roles, but all are good and effective with Samuthirakani the most notable as a corrupt police officer. For the most part the film concentrates on Yazhini and Kathir, their individual failures, small successes and the support each gains from the other as time goes by. To succeed, both Vijay Sethupathi and Madonna Sebastian need to be balanced in their performances and they manage it beautifully – making sure that the film doesn’t lose momentum even when the story switches between the two characters. Together they are even better and their relationship is the reason the film does work so well.

While Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum may not pack the same punch as Soodhu Kavvum it’s still an enjoyable film with plenty of comedy and a well written storyline. Although there are no major twists it’s still never predictable or dull and I found quite a few surprises along the way. A film about friendship rather than romance between a man and a woman is relatively rare in Tamil cinema and this is an excellent example of just how good a story can be without adding in unnecessary love scenes. Add the always very watchable Vijay Sethupathi and Kadhalum Kadandhu Pogum is definitely well worth a watch.

Soodhu Kavvum (2013)

Soodhu Kavvum

I love this film!  Nalan Kumarasmy’s début calls to mind shades of  Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Shallow Grave, and manages to pack in plenty of comedy, action and general all round craziness in a run time of just over 2 hours.  The film centres on a kidnapping caper but there are so many different ideas tossed in, and the plot development initially seems so haphazard that perhaps the most astonishing thing is how well everything does make perfect sense at the end.  Soodhu Kavvum is essentially a dark comedy where a number of seemingly unrelated people and random happenings are thrown together into what turns out to be a funny and intelligently written storyline. Not all of Kumarasamy’s unconventional ideas hit the mark, but with inspired performances from a great cast, Soodhu Kavvum is one of my favourite films from last year and a definite must watch.

The story follows the exploits of Das (Vijay Sethupathi), his imaginary girlfriend Shalu (Sanshita Shetty) and three friends who become involved in the kidnapping caper.  There is also an ‘honest politician’, his lazy son and a psychotic police officer who never speaks, along with many other slightly off-the-wall characters who each have their own reason to be in the mix.  Each character has a number of strengths and flaws that makes them more interesting to watch, but also to some extent explains their various motivations and why they react as they do to each new crisis. Everyone is introduced in a way to showcase their personality and then slowly Kumarasamy draws all the threads together to make a coherent whole.  It’s cleverly done to keep interest in the main protagonists even when all of them seem quite typically normal, everyday people and none are particularly likeable.

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Vijay Sethupathi is the absolute star of the show here and is completely unrecognisable as Das, a more middle-aged and careful character than I’ve seen him play before.  Das is considered and thoughtful, almost gentle despite his criminal tendencies although he still appears quite manic when required.  Vijay really does appear much older here, it’s his mannerisms and stance rather than just make-up, and he perfectly blends a rational approach to his criminal activities with just a hint of mania as he argues with his non-existent girlfriend – or is she? That’s one of the delights of Soodhu Kavvum – just as you think you have a handle on what is happening and where the story is going, Nalan Kumarasamy sends it off in a completely different direction and introduces new characters seemingly out of nowhere. Except if you were paying attention (or watch it again!), they are there in the background all along.

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Das has developed a strict set of rules for his ‘kednapping’ business but a lack of manpower has caused him to rethink his tactic.  After a chance meeting with three friends in a bar, he offers them the opportunity to join his kidnapping team.  The three friends have their own problems; each is out of work and looking for a way to earn some easy cash.  Pagalavan (Bobby Simha) has moved to Chennai to stay with his friend Kesavan (Ashok Selvan) when he ran into a spot of bother in his native Trichy.  This involved building a temple to actress Nayanthara and the reactions of first Kesavan and then his friend Sekhar to this news speak volumes for their respective characters.  Sekhar (Ramesh Thilak) is an out of work hotel car park attendant who gets up early and gets ready for work every day, but then sits and drinks his way through a bottle of whiskey.   There is a quick blink and you’ll miss him appearance of fellow director Karthik Subbaraj in the scenes that describe how Sekhar lost his job which is pretty cool. Bobby Simha is also excellent and completely unrecognisable from his recent appearance in Jigarthanda, although his performance here is just as impressive.

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Everything goes pear-shaped when Das accepts a commission to kidnap Arumai Pragasam (Karunakaran), the son of inconveniently honest politician Gnanodayam (M.S. Bhaskar). For all of his lauded refusal to take bribes and capitulate to corruption, Gnanodayam is a very grey character as he entraps industrialists hoping to bribe him in the usual fashion, and is also abusive to his wife and son.  Karunakaran is superb in his role as the lazy and dishonest son, and his laconic delivery of his lines is excellent. Just look too at his excellent ‘uncle-dancing’ skills in this song where he celebrates the joys of money.

Yog Japee turns up in the second half as slightly unhinged police officer K. Bramma. There is an excellent montage of fights to show how he drags information out of the Chennai underworld as he tries to track down the kidnappers. Rather than the usual biffo in more conventional films, this is fast, mean and ugly and fits perfectly into Bramma’s persona. Truly he is the malefic effect of Saturn personified!

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Soodhu Kavvum does have a few moments that don’t succeed, and the sheer number of twists means that it doesn’t work quite as well on a second viewing – although I did get almost as much enjoyment out of spotting the different characters in the background before they appeared in the main narrative. What I do love about this film is that the story is just as important as any individual character, and almost every moment is spent moving the narrative forward.  Each character has a role to play and at that point, they are the most important person in the scene.  I really like that there is no over-blown romance, no idealistically perfect hero and no mass fight scenes. It’s just a good story, well told with excellent actors delivering great performances.  4½ stars.